Of all stolen personal data, Social Security numbers are among the most valuable to identity thieves. They can be used for many fraudulent purposes and for an extended period of time, long after credit cards have been canceled and bank accounts have been changed or closed.
The Use of Existing Accounts
A Social Security number can provide access to the rest of an individual's personal data, including date of birth, address, marital status and credit reports. This information can be used to access existing accounts simply by pulling a credit report. Credit cards in the victim's name and their limits are of primary interest to identity thieves. Cards with the largest available credit limits can be replicated using machines, laminators and blank cards that can be purchased online. Identity thieves can also use SSNs in combination with other personal data to access medical insurance plans. Uncovered costs are billed to the victim. Mailing addresses are commonly changed so victims don't receive bills and statements from breached accounts.
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Applying for New Credit Cards and Loans
A Social Security number can be used to open new credit cards and apply for loans. This activity may go on as long as the credit score of the victim remains high enough for approval of each new account. Inevitably, as new credit card and loan payments continue to go unpaid, the victim's credit score will drop to a point where applications for fraudulent accounts start getting declined. Declined applications for credit cards or loans may be the first indication of a big problem for a victim who isn't yet aware of the fraudulent activity.
Stealing Government Benefits and Tax Returns
A Social Security number can be used to get access to a victim's tax returns and government benefits such as Social Security payments, disability checks or unemployment benefits. The victim may not learn of a stolen tax refund until the state tax authority or the IRS notifies her that her own filing is a duplicate. The theft of government benefits may take longer to discover if payments aren't expected. For example, someone in possession of stolen personal data might file for disability benefits. If the person whose information is being used isn't disabled, the theft may not be discovered for years.
How Thieves Get Away with It
Criminals get away with identity theft through a combination of sophistication and due to under-funded law enforcement agencies. The most sophisticated identity thieves set up chains of identities so their names aren't directly linked to the victim. For example, an identity thief might steal someone's Social Security number using the name of another victim. When this process is repeated, it results in several identities existing between the first victim and the thief, and the trail can go cold long before law enforcement can catch up. Thieves also get away with stealing identities due to limited resources at law enforcement agencies. Due to constrained budgets, the escalation in the number of identity theft crimes has left these agencies with a growing backlog of cases. Under these circumstances, smaller crimes may never be investigated, while other cases grow so old that building evidence and a case against the thief becomes almost impossible.